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MUNITIONS MAINTENANCE SQUADRONS
IN THE STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND
DURING THE COLD WAR
MMS, 380th Bombardment Wing (Medium)
The “Cold War” is officially over, and the United States is the winner; the Soviet Union is no more. However, the threat posed to the United States by the former Soviet Union has been replaced by a myriad of other threats around the world, large and small, but just as dangerous in their own way to our interests. Let’s hope the lessons we’ve learned over the last 50 years will enable us to prevail over these threats as well.
The primary reason the United States emerged as the winner of the Cold War was that the capabilities of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) were so evident and overwhelming that the Soviet Union realized they could not win a direct confrontation. This gave the world the breathing room it needed for the democracies to strengthen themselves and the internal contradictions and inefficiencies of the Soviet system to destroy it from within. Even so, the time was not purchased cheaply.
Strategic Air Command’s capabilities were hard won. General Curtis E. LeMay began with World War II era piston-engined airplanes. He and his successors relentlessly drove the men who flew and maintained them, modernizing as they went, to forge the most powerful fighting force the world has ever seen, one that convinced our enemies and friends alike that we could do everything we said we could do, and nothing could stand in our way. It took time to develop this capability, and once developed, it required the total effort of hundreds of thousands of people to keep it honed to the edge necessary to execute the awesome task placed on the Strategic Air Command - the assured and nearly immediate nuclear destruction of any enemy’s capability to carry on the fight.
That requirement was declared excess when the Cold War ended, and SAC is no more. Its nuclear mission has fallen to a contingency command, and its crews are no longer on “alert.” However, for over 40 years, the warriors of Strategic Air Command were ever vigilant, each performing his or her assigned task with dedication and precision. What follows are some of my of remembrances of performing just one of the vital tasks required in this all out effort: The maintenance and handling of munitions for SAC’s bombers and missiles. For most of my time in the business, munitions meant the nuclear weapons of the bomber and missile wings.
In the early days, those were bombs for SAC’s B-36 and B-47 bombers, and those weapons were maintained and loaded aboard the bombers at just a few locations. Until the mid-1950s, in the event “the balloon went up,” it was necessary for SAC aircraft to deploy from their home base to a SAC base adjacent to an Air Force Station (AFS) operated by the “owner” of the bombs, Air Force Logistics Command (AFLC). There, SAC bombers would onload their Emergency War Order (EWO) nuclear payload of bombs, and re-launch in accordance with the EWO operation. The AFLC bomb storage and maintenance locations and the adjacent SAC bases were: Deep Creek AFS/Fairchild AFB, Washington, Mt. Rushmore AFS/Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota, Caribou AFS/Loring AFB, Maine, and Stony Brook AFS/Westover AFB, Massachusetts. Although it was much more convenient for AFLC to maintain the complex nuclear weapons (often referred to as special weapons) at their few facilities, this arrangement was quite awkward for efficient SAC operations, and severely affected response times. As world conditions tensed and the capabilities of the Soviet Union came closer to matching our own, SAC found it necessary to make major changes in the overall operation.
In the late ‘50s, SAC instituted the Bombs on Base (BOB) program. This placed the special weapons on the same base as the aircraft that would carry them, and required significant changes in munitions storage, maintenance and loading operations. There were over 45 stateside and 20 overseas SAC locations, and the BOB program required the construction or extensive upgrading of the existing Munitions Storage Areas (MSAs), the “bomb dumps,” at each base. One of the most important was to match the bombs with the aircraft which would carry them, and place those aircraft on “Alert.”
A base normally consisted of a landlord/housekeeping unit called the Combat Support Group (CSG). The CSG normally supported one or two Bomb Wings (BW) (with either 45 B-47s or 15 B-52s per wing), a missile wing, or a BW and missile wing combination. Initially SAC placed the responsibility of maintaining the special weapons on the CSG. The CSG sub-unit that maintained the bombs and loaded the aircraft kept the old AFLC designation of Aviation Depot Squadron (ADS). The majority of the munitions personnel in the ADSs came from AFLC, and they brought with them their ideas of how to operate. When it came time to load a bomb onto an aircraft, it took an incredible amount of coordination to mate a bomb, a mission-ready aircraft, and a qualified bomb loading team at the necessary spot on the flight line to accomplish the task. In addition, SAC aircraft maintenance personnel and the ex-AFLC munitions personnel each believed the others didn’t know how to do their jobs, and deep animosities developed. This did not make for a very efficient operation.
Of course, world tensions and the improving Soviet capabilities did not sit back and wait for these conditions to iron themselves out. Response times had to shorten, and the “powers-to-be” decided to place a large portion of SAC forces on what became known as “Home Station Alert,” and to pre-position aircraft at overseas locations on what was called “Reflex Alert,” or “Reflex” for short. Each Alert bomber had to be loaded with the bombs (and everything else necessary to go to war) to match the EWO requirements, and Alert aircraft had to be capable of take-off within 15 minutes of receiving the launch order.
For various valid safety and security reasons, SAC would not allow aircraft to be serviced or otherwise worked on with nuclear weapons on board. Basically, the aircraft were loaded with nuclear weapons just before assuming Alert, and had to be downloaded when coming off Alert. This greatly multiplied the number of bomb loading operations required over the previous period, when bombs were only loaded at the AFSs for maintenance proficiency and training. Because of the complicated coordination required between the CSG and BW to accomplish this, SAC moved the ADSs from the CSG into the BW. There, munitions maintenance, along with all other aircraft maintenance, was under direct control and coordination of the wing’s Deputy Commander for Maintenance (DCM), and the ADS was renamed the Munitions Maintenance Squadron (MMS).
Each MMS was organized into Command, Maintenance Supervision, Munitions Service Branch, Munitions Maintenance Branch and, when supporting a missile wing, a Reentry Vehicle Branch. The MMS for a single B-47 Bomb Wing had about 100 enlisted personnel authorized, including nuclear weapons mechanics, Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC) 463X0, weapon systems mechanics, AFSC 462X0, conventional munitions mechanics, AFSC 461X0, explosive ordnance technicians, AFSC 464X0, supply specialists, AFSC 64XX0, and administrative specialists AFSC 702X0. It also had a munitions supply officer (642X) and four authorized positions for munitions officers (462X).
In 1960, SAC had an open position in one of those 462X authorizations, and dreamed up one more bright idea to improve its munitions maintenance operations! After five years as a Coast Guard sailor and airman, five years as an Air Force Crew Chief, and eight years as a Combat Crew Member on B-36 and B-47 aircraft, SAC threw me into the MMS caldron as that “462 X-Ray.” Although the Air Force had a mandatory requirement for nuclear weapons officers to be graduates of the Air Training Command’s Nuclear Weapons School, SAC had a requirement for a munitions officer right now, and I was the sacrificial goat! So started my new career, a most challenging, frustrating and rewarding career.
Now, from my experiences as a B-36 Performance Engineer and B-47 Navigator/Bombardier, I knew how nuclear weapons worked and how to release one onto a target from the aircraft. But as far as I knew, they put the bomb into the aircraft at the factory where they built them both. That lack of knowledge SAC was soon to correct.
380th Bomb Wing
Of course, loading, unloading, and maintaining nuclear weapons was very complex, and safety was very important. Each MMS handled all sorts of munitions and explosives, and it was second nature to be alert and practice safety at all times. The Air Force devoted both regulations (AFRs) and manuals (AFMs) to nuclear and conventional safety and operations. The -122 series outlined nuclear safety and security, while the -127 series covered all explosives. SAC supplemented the publications, adding many specific directions and requirements. In addition, each MMS had to have an officer assigned the additional duty as Squadron Safety Officer. I filled this position through all of my munitions assignments. SAC also directed that this safety officer would also be the Wing and Support Group nuclear and explosive safety officer. This meant conducting briefings and training for security forces, fire departments, aircraft maintenance personnel, and others whose duties required them to perform duty around these hazards. It took a lot of time away from trying to perform my primary duties in the MMS.
There was a lot to know in the MMS. The 380th BW was assigned five different series of bombs. The single bombs (MK 15-1, MK 39-1, MK 39-2) were all parachute retarded when dropped. They were about 12 feet long and three feet in diameter and weighed about 6,600 pounds, with a nuclear yield of four megatons. The MK 28-IN (free fall) and MK 28-RI (parachute retarded) bombs were carried in pairs in B-47s. They were about 20 inches in diameter, and the -IN was six feet long, while the -RI was 14 feet long. The weighed from 1,800 to 2,200 pounds and the nuclear yield could be varied from ten kilotons to 1.1 megatons.
Each loading team member needed to be certified as qualified to handle, transport, upload, download and electrically check out the aircraft monitor, control and release systems for each type bomb. This required training with inert bombs, an aircraft, necessary support maintenance personnel and numerous hours of training before being rated as qualified. This was done for each of the five series of bombs and the ATO system.
Each qualified loading team member had to complete an upload/download for each type bomb once every 30 days. Live “war reserve” bombs could be used to meet this requirement for qualified teams. Non-qualified team members required inert training weapons.
Team members also had to be qualified in two types of weapons suspension systems. The 380th BW was selected to be the first B-47 unit to convert to the MHU-5A “clip-in” weapons suspension system. The B-47 had one of these aircraft bomb racks on each side of the bomb bay. An MHU-29 assembly, to which the bombs themselves were attached, was then “clipped in” to the MHU-5A suspension system. The clip-in system was designed to carry either a single large nuclear weapon or the newer, smaller bombs in multiples. The system was designed to replace the old U-2 pneumatically operated suspension system, which could only carry a single weapon and the bomb itself was secured in a device resembling a very large bicycle chain. The clip-in system was a vast improvement over the U-2 system, which had evolved from the RAF Lancaster - Grand Slam 12 ton high explosive bomb combination used during WWII. It had worked well, but could not be adapted to carry multiple smaller bombs such as the new MK 28 series of nuclear bombs. During this initial change-over phase it was necessary for the MMS personnel to maintain and be qualified to use both release systems, and the five types of bombs. Once qualified, team members could get to work, and there was a lot of work to be done.
The 380th BW had 18 B-47s on Home Station Alert, and another twelve aircraft on overseas Reflex Alert at RAF Brize Norton in England. Each aircraft would spend three weeks fully EWO loaded on Alert. To get the Reflex aircraft back and forth, a flight of three was dispatched to England Norton each week, and, after they arrived at Brize Norton, the replaced flight of three would return to Plattsburgh. One aircraft was prepared for home station alert each and every day, year in and year out. This meant that 30 of the 45 assigned aircraft were EWO configured on Alert, while four were en route to Brize Norton or being readied for Home Station Alert, leaving only 11 aircraft for flying, training, or scheduled maintenance. Coordinating this schedule required a never ending effort by operations, maintenance and munitions.
Aircraft were scheduled to be “cocked” onto Alert by the aircrew at a specific time, and the aircraft coming off Alert were scheduled to take off on a training mission, also at a specific time, all in accordance with the schedules in SAC Regulation 51-9. These times were set in concrete, and SAC measured the BW efficiency and ability to do its EWO mission by its ability to meet these scheduled times. To place a B-47 onto Alert required significant effort by the maintenance squadrons. All systems had to be operational before munitions could be loaded onto the aircraft, which was the last step in readying the “Alert Bird.” For the Reflex aircraft, it was necessary to complete a preflight of all the weapons and munitions systems including the ATO, prior to its departure for Brize Norton.
Deviations from the times in SAC Regulation 51-9 were not permitted. Enough failures to meet these schedules, and it did not take many failures, and the BW could be declared Non-Combat Ready. To be Non-Combat Ready was a “very bad thing” and harmful to careers. In addition, other bomb wings had to pick up the uncovered EWO missions and much time and effort would be expended in regaining “Combat Ready” status.
When a scheduled “cock time” began to slip, usually early in the aircraft generation sequence, we munitions troops knew we were in for a problem. As the last step before turning the aircraft over the aircrew, there was almost always tremendous pressure on us to speed up our procedures to meet the scheduled cock time. The rest of the wing’s “munitions experts,” (none of whom ever seemed to be part of the MMS) would begin to tell us how we could speed up our part of the operation. Using two or more teams was a favorite suggestion. However, it was not safely possible to simultaneously electrically check out the ATO, bomb monitoring and release systems, or to load everything at the same time, or do any of the other suggestions these “experts” came up with, but they never stopped trying to get us to deviate from our procedures.
There were many reasons our processes could not be speeded up appreciably. First, there was the problem of security for the nuclear weapons. They had to be under secure custody at all times, and could not be parked just any old place as we waited for aircraft maintenance personnel to finish their work. Only personnel on an authorized access list, who had a completed Background Investigation (BI) and a “Secret” level security clearance, could provide that secure custody. Normally, this meant only MMS personnel and aircrew members. No one else was permitted access to the weapons, no matter where they were located.
In addition, placarding was required every step of the way. All nuclear weapons used conventional explosives as part of the complex operation to get a nuclear detonation. It was impossible to cause a nuclear detonation without meeting a very complicated set a criteria, including electrical signals, velocity, changes in barometric pressure and the like. However, the conventional explosives in the bombs could be detonated by fire or shock. Of course, the 20mm ammo and ATO bottles were also explosive. In case of an emergency, the Fire Department and other disaster response crews needed to know where hazards existed, and therefore all our transport and towing vehicles had to have EXPLOSIVE signs in three inch high letters. We also had to have those signs posted on the aircraft. Naturally, MMS was left to make the stencils, get the paint and paper and affix the signs in the proper places. We taped the signs to the aircraft wheel well doors, and of course everybody complained that they would tear or come off when wet and present a FOD hazard, but no one came up with an alternative, just complaints to speed up the work.
Distance was a problem. The Munitions Storage Area (MSA) was located quite a distance from the flight line, over three miles at Plattsburgh. To get the scheduled bomb or bombs from the MSA to the aircraft required the 462X0 loading troops to obtain a C-21 electrical power unit, which was required to operated the bomb loader-trailer, from the ground power maintenance unit, enter the MSA through two security police controlled gates, sign for the necessary keys from AFK supply, and unlock the double locked storage “igloo.” Igloo entry required shutting off the specific electronic alarm, using a five ton capacity hydraulic jack to assist in opening the igloo doors, which weighted several tons, and loading the bombs onto the transport vehicle. After closing the igloo, resetting the alarm and signing a receipt for the bombs from the AFK supply, obtaining the 20mm ammunition, passing back through the two security gates, obtaining a security police escort, the loading team would then tow all of this across the runway and to the aircraft loading site, usually in the alert parking area.
Moving from the MSA to the aircraft was slow, slow, slow. All munitions were towed at a maximum of five miles per hour. Originally, the transport vehicles had been straddle carriers similar to those used in lumber yards where the driver sat on top with the load suspended under him between the wheels. These were later phased out to be replaced by an electric powered, hydraulic operated combination transport-loading trailer (the MHU-7M) towed by a 2 1/2 ton capacity BC-164 International truck. The fully loaded MHU-7M bomb trailer would weight between four and 12 tons, depending on the specific bombs. The loading team also needed to obtain the ATO racks tow them to the loading site.
Another problem was with the perception of just what was required to actually load the bombs, gun ammunition and ATO racks, test the systems, and clean up, which were the last scheduled actions prior to turning the aircraft over the aircrew. It took one hour to load the bombs, 45 minutes to load the ATO rack (just aft of the rear landing gear on the B-47), and 15 minutes for the 20mm ammo for the two MK 24 20mm cannons located in the tail.
You could not hurry loading the 20mm ammo. It was shipped in either wooden crates or metal cans, and was unpacked and inspected for loading into the aircraft ammo cans by the conventional munitions troops (461X0s). The ammo had to be perfectly aligned in the aircraft cans to ensure it would not jam when fired. Two types of projectiles were used, High Explosive Incendiary (HEI) and Training Projectile (TP). Each HEI projectile contained an incendiary composition that would ignite upon impact, which would also initiate the high explosive charge. The TP projectile was solid shot. The cartridge was fired electrically rather than with a firing pin striking a percussion cap. It was possible to fire a cartridge by a stray electrical static charge, so it was extremely important to ground all units, trucks, aircraft and ammo cans properly when loading, unloading or transporting the ammo. The B-47E and B-52H used 20mm, while the B-52G used 50 cal. ammo which did not have an explosive projectile, but the safety precautions for each were the same.
Loading the ATO racks was also time consuming. We maintained 45 assembled ATO racks. Thirty-three of the ATO assemblies were preloaded with 33 ATO bottles each for the 380th’s EWO mission. Eighteen of those were on the alert birds, and 15 were on stationary racks in the MSA. Twelve racks were stored assembled but not preloaded with bottles where ever we could find room in the MSA. Each ATO bottle weighed about 100 pounds and the entire assembly weighed about 4,300 pounds. These were loaded using a hydraulically operated transport/loader trailer that used a manual hand pump that required a lot of pumping! Each bottle produced 1,000 pounds of thrust for 15 seconds using a solid rocket fuel propellant which was ignited by a black powder charge which was in turn ignited electrically by the pilot at unstick speed during take off. As the ATO racks were stored in the open and exposed to the elements (which meant a lot of snow at Plattsburgh), it was necessary to check this electrical firing circuit not only during each up or down load, but regularly and frequently at their storage location in the MSA.
Loading the bombs themselves could be delayed by malfunctioning equipment. The MHU-7M bomb trailer was a hydraulic system powered electrically. Should the electrics on the trailer fail, it had a backup manual pump system to pressurize the hydraulics, but it was minimally effective.
Finally, one loading team had to perform the entire loading sequence - after all, space was a factor too, and you can only put so many people on the head of a pin! However, we in the MMS considered ourselves part of the whole team and made every effort to ensure our job was completed properly in the minimum time. Never-the-less, I always made it a point to be present during each time one of my teams performed an upload or download operation to provide a buffer between the loading team and the wing’s “munitions experts.”
After the munitions upload was completed, the aircrews would preflight the aircraft, cock it onto Alert, and sign a receipt from the loading team for the nuclear weapons. The loading team would then proceed to the aircraft coming off Alert, which would then be uncocked and prepared for it a First Sortie After Ground Alert (FSAGA) mission. The loading team would down load the bombs, ATO and the 20mm HEI war ammo. replacing it with 20mm TP ammo, which would be fired out on the FSAGA sortie. After the download, MMS would then turn the aircraft over to aircraft maintenance. No maintenance except for safety of flight items was permitted. This was required by SAC as a way to measure how well the aircraft, which had been on alert for three weeks, ready to go to war, would be able to accomplish that mission, if it had been launched during that three week period.
After downloading the replaced aircraft, the munitions items would be returned to their specific storage locations. Usually one loading team performed all actions for both the upload of the Alert Bird, and the download of the replaced aircraft, which combined took anywhere from eight to 12 hours.
Having sufficient manpower to do this demanding task day in and day out was a constant challenge. The 40th MMS Services Branch was authorized sixty-five 462X0 personnel. A clip-in system loading team initially consisted of five members plus a senior Noncommissioned Officer (NCO) called the Safety Supervisor. To meet our EWO plans, which involved mass simultaneous loadings, we required eight qualified loading teams, meaning a total of forty-eight 462X0s. Each team had to be qualified in both the older U-2 and newer clip-in systems for each of the five different weapons, plus ATO. However, being authorized 65 people did not mean being manned at that level. For stateside manning, it was considered normal if you had 85% of your authorization, meaning just 55 462X0s. This only allowed six people in the Branch to be sick, in training, on leave, or TDY to the overseas reflex base, instead of the seventeen we should have had.
To overcome the chronic shortage of loading team members, our branch figured out how to do the job using four man teams (plus the Safety Supervisor). This meant we now required only 40 people, giving us 14 others for training, etc. We proudly forwarded our concept on to SAC Headquarters, where they approved our recommendation. Of course, they also recalculated our required manning and proceeded to cut our authorized strength from 65 to 50, manned us at 85% and continued the requirement for eight loading teams. They were always happy to look at new ideas, those fellows at the Headquarters!
The Headquarters was always happy to look at our operations first hand as well. They used a no-notice inspection program called Operational Readiness Inspection and Test (ORIT) to measure the capability of each of unit to perform its primary mission, that of going to war. It tested each wing at least once every six months.
An ORIT normally started during the early morning hours with the unannounced arrival of the inspection team and the “Cocoa Alert” of the alert force. There were three levels of alert. “Alpha” required air crews to man their aircraft and check in ready by radio with the wing Command Post (CP). “Bravo” required air crews to man the aircraft, start engines and check in with the CP. “Cocoa” was Bravo, plus required the crews to taxi to the runway, simulate take off and then return to the alert parking area.
The MMS loading teams’ actions during the ORIT was to break out the weapons, ATO and 20mm ammo for the “follow-on bomber force” (the 15 aircraft not on home station or reflex alert).
The preparation of the follow-on force followed this pattern: Maintenance personnel had to complete all maintenance and have the aircraft ready for loading and to fly at a specified time. Munitions loading teams brought the weapons from the MSA to a temporary “hot storage” point on the flight line which was guarded by security police. When aircraft maintenance declared a follow-on aircraft ready, a loading team would transport all necessary munitions, check out all systems and upload the EWO munitions.
However, the ORIT was not as easy as just loading additional airplanes. While this follow-on aircraft generation was occurring, the alert force aircraft had to be downloaded and those munitions returned to their primary storage areas. Thus, at the same time the 15 follow-on aircraft were being uploaded, the 18 alert aircraft were being down loaded. The reason was that the Alert crews were required to fly a simulated combat mission as part of the ORIT, and flights with live nuclear weapons were severely restricted and not permitted during an ORIT.
The 18 aircraft alert force was then launched to fly their simulated EWO mission. As the alert force was launched, the follow-on force aircraft had to be down loaded so they could be launched to fly their ORIT missions.
When the alert force aircraft returned, they had necessary maintenance performed, were serviced and refueled, and placed back in the alert parking area. This then required their original EWO munitions to be once again uploaded. The aircrews then cocked the aircraft back onto alert. Keeping count? That was 33 uploads and 33 downloads over the 72-hours of the ORIT.
As part of the ORIT, the 463X0 weapon mechanics would be required to disassemble, test and reassemble one of each type on bomb in the EWO plan (five kinds for the 40th MMS). They would also load these bombs back into the MHU-29C clip-in unit specified for each bomb. Loading teams would also have each piece of equipment, 2 1/2 ton truck, MHU-7M trailer, ATO loading trailers, storage racks, electrical test equipment and check list thoroughly checked by inspection team members. Each MMS member would then have written tests on nuclear safety and security.
During an ORIT, eating and sleeping was done on the flight line where ever food and space could be found. It required a 100% effort for 100% of the time for Services Branch loading teams to meet the ORIT requirements.
One chronic shortage we had was support from other wing and CSG units. While we were authorized support from the Civil Engineer, the motor pool, and the Field Maintenance Squadron for our facilities and equipment, it was usually necessary to perform many of these functions ourselves.
Munitions and explosives were stored in earth covered cement structures called igloos. These were covered with two to three feet of earth to help contain any accidental explosion. To keep this earth cover from eroding or washing off, it was planted with some ground cover, usually grass. This would grow, usually at a rapid rate, and become a fire hazard, so it needed to be mowed and raked very often during the growing season. However, when it came time to get the base Civil Engineer (CE) to send his folks out to cut the grass, he applied the same standards to an igloo as he did to any other building belonging to another squadron - they would only mow to within 25 feet of a structure, while the building “owner” was responsible for the rest! We could see the point with a barracks or squadron building, but it always irritated us to have that policy applied to the igloos. We were not authorized the equipment necessary to mow the igloos, which had a 35 degree slope on the end and sides, and had to cut the grass using “idiot stick” scythes.
Snow removal was a very big problem at Plattsburgh. Did it ever snow! Although the MSA had a high priority, the CE snow plow operators never had the required security clearance to enter the MSA, so we always had to provide the necessary escorts. Even then, they did a very poor job of clearing the snow from the doorways of the igloos, which we then had to shovel clear by hand. To solve this problem, the CE decided that the MMS should be checked out on an Oshkosh 3-ton flip-over snow plow, and once more we got into the business of doing CE’s job. Actually, we couldn’t complain, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We became very expert at getting to within inches of doorways in the MSA and around the security gates, and could now plow around various hangar and storage structures to clear spaces where we could store our loading trailers out of the weather, all for the low, low, price of just driving the snow plow.
The base motor pool was as supportive as the
CE. The motor pool’s approach appeared to be “if
it is used for munitions and explosives, we don’t work
on it.” Loading team members had to become
electrical and hydraulic experts to keep the bomb and
ATO trailers operating properly. In addition,
the major transport and tow vehicle we used was the
International Harvester BC-164 two and a half ton
truck. It came equipped with an open steel bed
on which we had to install a wooden bed to prevent
sparks while handling explosives. The truck was
not particularly suited to the slow driving required
for nuclear weapons, especially on ice and snow.
The main problem was it needed a lot of
electricity. It had an electrically operated
clutch so you needed electrical power to shift gears,
and the transmission was either in gear or out of
gear, so there was no easing the clutch to start
moving. On snow or ice covered surfaces the
drive wheels without tire chains would spin and it
took the whole team to start shoving to start it
moving. With tire chains, the spinning wheels
would dig a trough, so when loaded or towing a
munitions trailer it would get stuck very
easily! The truck and trailers had to have
clearance lights which used lots of electrical
power. The trucks were equipped with generators,
so when moving at five mph battery charging was
non-existent. A dead battery meant no gear
shifting, no moving, no clearance lights!
Problems! The problem was later (much later!)
eased by changing to alternators. But each team
always carried a pair of unauthorized jumper cables,
and used them regularly!
My Loading Team participated in the 1961 SAC Combat Competition (also called the "SAC Bomb Comp") at Fairchild AFB, WA. We won 1st Place in 8th Air Force, and 2nd Place overall in SAC.
Here is a photo of the the Team.
SAC maintained about 20 overseas bases as Reflex Alert sites. Some of these were dedicated for use by KC-97 and KC-135 Aerial Refueling Tankers and had no MMS assigned. Those used by bombers were sometimes collocated with the host country Air Force, while others were designated Air Bases (AB) and manned totally by U.S. forces. The SAC parent unit was normally a Combat Support Group and had no combat aircraft assigned. The bombers would come from stateside SAC units and spend three weeks on Reflex Alert. My next assignment was to one of those Reflex bases.
In July, 1962, I reported to the 5th MMS, 3906th Combat Support Group, Sidi Slimane AB, Morocco. While most Reflex bases had six to nine aircraft on Reflex Alert, Sidi Slimane had the largest contingent, 18 B-47E aircraft. These aircraft came from two different stateside bomb wings.
Nine of these aircraft were configured with clip-in systems, the others had the older U-2 pneumatic system. We had four loading teams at Sidi Slimane, and each had to be certified as qualified in each weapon system. The 5th MMS did get a break in training, since all the aircraft used only the MK 39-2 bomb.
Our schedule was fairly routine. Three clip-in configured B-47s would arrive late on Tuesday and three with the U-2 system would arrive late on Thursday. After the necessary maintenance and servicing, MMS would follow the same procedures to break out the bombs, ATO and 20mm HEI ammo, transport and up load into the new aircraft as we did in the states. After the aircrew cocked the aircraft onto Alert, the replaced aircraft would be uncocked and the munitions downloaded, transported and replaced into secure storage.
One loading team would take care of all emergency flight line operations, such as safing or downloading weapons for unscheduled aircraft maintenance, then uploading and placing the bombs back into alert configuration. They pulled this duty 24 hours a day, a week at a time. The other three teams would each take care of the incoming and outgoing aircraft. These operations often occupied a full 24 hours, and the weather could take it’s toll on the team. Where snow and cold was a problem at Plattsburgh, where summer lasted from August 12 - 13, at Sidi Slimane the Sirocco was the problem. The Sirocco was a high wind blowing heat and sand in from the Sahara, often for days at a time.
However, not everything was hot and dry at Sidi Slimane that year. When the nuclear MSA at Sidi Slimane was constructed, a river bed that normally only held water during a 100 year flood was diverted to send the river in a different direction. Over a period of time, the Moroccans in a nearby village, decided to re-divert the river bed to its original path, and felt it was unnecessary to notify anyone they had done so. As you might guess, in the spring of 1963, the 100 year flood occurred. Our first indication the river had been re-diverted was when five feet of water came flooding into the MSA. We scrambled to move the bombs and equipment out of danger and sand bag the vital structures to prevent water from damaging sensitive electrical equipment. We were successful in most cases. Following the flooding, Air Force and Moroccan officials had the river once again diverted from the Air Base, just in time for the USAF to pull out of the base and return it to the Moroccan government that summer.
In July, 1963, our Moroccan bases were closed and many B-47s were removed from the SAC inventory. I was reassigned as Maintenance Supervisor, 56th MMS, 416th BW (Heavy), Griffiss AFB, NY. As Maintenance Supervisor I was responsible for the operation of the Services and Maintenance Branches of the squadron. Our “customer,” the 416th, was a B-52G wing with 15 bombers and 15 KC-135 tankers assigned.
Air Force Logistics Command was the host at Griffiss AFB. The SAC Bomb Wing was only one of many tenants. At Griffiss, AFLC provided the MSA, one half of which was for the 56th MMS, while the other half was for the 49th Fighter Interceptor Squadron of the Air Defense Command, flying F-101B “Voodoos,” and also took care of grass cutting and snow removal. In this arrangement, AFLC provided the security for the MSA, but SAC provided its own security for the SAC flight line area. This meant the MMS had to provide personnel access lists to each command’s security forces.
My introduction to B-52s came quickly. We had checked-in to the guest house to wait for a house on base to become available. I had contacted my squadron, but had not yet signed in for duty. That first night in the guest house, I was contacted by my new Squadron Commander, who was beginning his first SAC assignment following several non-munitions assignments in other commands. He requested that I report for duty, as the SAC Inspector General (IG) team had arrived and was beginning a no-notice ORIT! He and I were the only 462X munitions officers assigned. I was provided an NCO escort as I had not obtained a local security clearance, a copy of the secret SAC 140 plan, which matched which bomb was to be loaded on which B-52, and went to work that night. We accomplished all the required uploads, downloads and regeneration uploads, but failed the ORIT for numerous reasons. Six months later, after much hard work by everyone, the 56th MMS was rated as one of the best in SAC.
As a typical B-52G wing, the 416th was authorized an MMS with thirty 462X0s for five four-man teams, plus safety supervisors and control room personnel, as well as 463X0 maintenance and 461X0 conventional munitions troops, plus AFK supply and administrative personnel, for a 65-man squadron. Explosive Ordnance Disposal support was provided by the AFLC host. Most of the transport and loading equipment was the same as that used by a B-47 MMS. Bomb storage, break out, transportation, safety and security were very much like that of previous operations with the B-47. As with a B-47 wing, it was always a problem to obtain an aircraft for MMS training. Our personnel turnover was always high, creating a continuous need for training, though it certainly seemed that at times that both operations and aircraft maintenance considered MMS an outside agency, for all the help they provided in scheduling for our needs! In addition, the SAC area had only one spare aircraft parking spot, and this required much repositioning to upload an aircraft and put it onto Alert.
This problem was compounded when, prior to my arrival, a local civic support group raised funds to provide a recreational facility for Alert aircrews and their families at the “Bull Pen” where the Alert crews lived while on Alert. Despite the plethora of regulations governing munitions, withdrawal distances, and safe corridors, all the coordination and ground work for building the recreation facility had been accomplished with out checking explosive safety factors. One of the Alert parking spots (for a fully loaded B-52) was right next to this facility.
Naturally, this was discovered after my arrival, just in time for it to be given to me to correct! This soon became a very complex and time consuming project. Part of the solution was to place the Alert aircraft with the smallest amount of explosives on board next the recreational facility. It was also necessary to build a rather large earth-filled blast retaining wall separating the facility from the aircraft. All this had to be done while keeping the local support group from finding out their funds had been used to build an unusable facility! Fortunately, we finally finished with no feelings were hurt, though no one was able to use the facility until the corrective measures had been completed.
The B-52G did not use ATO, but did carry .50
caliber ammunition for the four-gun tail turret, two
AGM-77 “Hound Dog” missiles with W-28 nuclear
warheads, and four ADM-72 “Quail” decoy
missiles. The Airborne Missile Maintenance
Squadron (AMMS) performed all storage, maintenance and
loading actions for these Hound Dogs and Quail except
the warhead up and downloading and the maintenance of
the explosive release devices. The B-52G had a
clip-in release system in each of the forward and aft
bomb bays. The EWO for the 416th required each
aircraft carry a total of four MK 28 RI (retarded
internal) or four MK 28 FIFO (full internal fusing
option) bombs in the forward bomb bay, two AGM-77s
under the wings, and for six of the bombers to carry
the ADM-72 package in the aft bomb bay (in the other
nine bombers, the aft bomb bay was empty). Each
During the winter of 1963, the B-52 MAU-6A clip-in bomb racks were found to have stress cracks. It was up to each MMS to inspect the entire inventory for corrective action. This required that each rack be downloaded from the aircraft, the paint removed, and a dye penetrant check performed. Each rack found without cracks had to be shot peened to strengthen the probable crack points, and then be reinstalled. All cracked racks had to be shipped to a depot for extensive rework. The MMS not only had to perform the tests, we also had to keep enough racks on hand to meet the EWO bomb commitment, while the cracked racks were repaired at the depot.
The notification message to inspect the racks came to the attention of the MMS as an announcement at the Wing DCM’s regular morning maintenance meeting, where all maintenance squadrons’ supervisory personnel were present. The DCM asked how many racks we would need? I answered 15, and that since each B-52 had two of these racks, one in each bomb bay, this meant we had 15 racks at a time available for rework. The DCM disagreed, strongly. He said I was wrong, that we needed 21, 15 for the bombs, and six more for the Quail missile package for the six bombers with that EWO load. I informed him the Quail loaded in the aft bomb bay did not use the MAU-6A rack. He again said I was wrong. Meanwhile, the AMMS Commander, responsible for the Quail package, and knowing I was right, said nothing! Finally, I said that I was the munitions expert and we only needed 15 racks! The DCM immediately jumped up and left the meeting with me in tow, heading to the flight line. There, the AMMS was conducting a Quail loading, and the DCM saw for himself that the MAU-6A rack played no part. The DCM stormed off leaving me on the flight line. He never apologized but he and I got along much better following the incident, though I’ve never really forgiven the AMMS commander for not speaking out at that meeting.
I was, in fact, a munitions expert, with four years experience. However, the fact that I was not a graduate of the mandatory Air Training Command Nuclear Weapons Officer School now presented a problem. Although my duty AFSC was munitions maintenance, until I was permanently grounded for medical reasons while serving at Sidi Slimane, my primary AFSC was that of Navigator (1525). Upon grounding, my primary AFSC became 4621, the entry level for munitions. The “1” indicated entry level, while the fully skilled 4625 meant that the position was suitable for any rank up to and including O-5, Lieutenant Colonel. However, I was still at the entry level despite my four years of experience, and, as a Captain, I needed the “5” if I were to ever be promoted. When I requested upgrading to the fully skilled 4625 level, SAC approved my application, but Air Force turned it down and said for me to attend the school. There ensued a personnel battle of sorts between SAC, which said they were short of 462X munitions officers and could not spare me, and Air Force, insisting I go to the school. After several months a compromise was reached in which the powers-that-be convened a senior Colonel board to determine my actual knowledge and skill level. The board conducted an interview and concluded I had sufficient knowledge to be upgraded to 4625 skill level without the formal school.
Just in time for SAC to develop an alternative to its nuclear weapons-only role! In 1964, they came up with a plan, code named “Flexible Response,” to use B-52s to deliver conventional 750 pound “iron bombs.” Each 15 aircraft B-52 Wing had three sets of unused conventional bomb racks stored away. We collected ours, and after modernizing them, we uploaded them one at a time into each of our B-52s and checked out the non-nuclear bomb release systems. We then received enough iron bombs, fuses, boosters, fins, arming wire, etc., to load three aircraft with 53 bombs each.
This was not as simple as it sounds. We had to make space for storage of the bombs in the MSA, modify our equipment to transport, upload and download the conventional bombs, and develop the appropriate checklists to safely operate with these bombs. Of course loading teams had to be certified and qualified to do these operations. As usual, the coordination required to get an aircraft configured for the correct bomb system was an on going problem.
A 250 pound M-124 sheet metal, sand filled bomb was used to check out aircrews on the range. The sand had to measured precisely in weight, and had to be absolutely dry to prevent freezing at altitude. Freezing caused one of two things to happen. Either the casing split open, spilling out the contents, or the case swelled up causing it to hang up in the rack! Our biggest problem that winter was where to find dry sand and a place to store it amid all that areas heavy snow. Eventually we worked it out, but had to rig up heaters to dry out the sand.
This conventional bomb load (53) proved to be too small for the B-52’s capability and a new “Big Belly” conventional system was developed which permitted each B-52 to carry in combination over one hundred 500 and 750 pound iron bombs. This system was used extensively in Vietnam.
Following my 15 months at Griffiss, which was one of my most rewarding assignments, I attended the 20-week long U.S. Navy School for Explosive Ordnance Disposal at the Naval Ordnance Station, Indian Head, Maryland. In the summer of 1965, I was reassigned as Munitions Maintenance Supervisor, 29th MMS, 19th BW (Heavy) at Homestead AFB, Florida. The 19th BW flew B-52H models.
The 19th BW was the host at Homestead, and the 29th MMS provided storage, maintenance, and loading of MK 28 RI and MK 28 FIFO bombs, W-28 warheads for the AGM-77 missile, and 20mm ammo for the Vulcan Gatling Gun the B-52H carried in the tail. We also provided conventional munitions storage, inspection and maintenance, and Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) support - a lot of EOD support - to the many tenants at Homestead. Air Force tenants included the 31st Tactical Fighter Wings flying F-100s and the 319th FIS flying F-104s. We also supported the U.S. Army’s 13th and 52nd Air Defense Artillery (ADA) Groups (using both conventional and nuclear armed Nike Hercules missiles), and the 15th ADA which was equipped with HAWK missiles with conventional warheads. These units were scattered at remote locations throughout South Florida. We also provided EOD support for numerous aircraft accidents, including F-100s, F-104s and F-105s, and to dispose of assorted munitions confiscated from the numerous Anti-Castro groups that at that time were attempting to re-take Cuba from the communists.
In 1965 the war in Southeast Asia was expanding rapidly and many 462X0s were assigned to support the war, leaving loading teams extremely short handed at all stateside bases. In the 29th MMS, 462X0, 461X0 and 464X0 manning dropped and remained below 50% for all of my tour at Homestead. Munitions officers were also in short supply, and for more than eight months, I was the only munitions officer assigned to the squadron.
The complicated procedure to break out, transport, up and download the bombs and warheads, was much the same as at Griffiss. The 19th BW had eight B-52Hs on Home Station Alert, cocked and ready for an EWO response. Additionally, we had an Airborne Alert, code named “Chrome Dome.” Chrome Dome required an EWO loaded B-52 in the air 24 hours a day. This meant a daily up and download to meet this requirement. Up and down loads went on around the clock, seven days a week.
Just weeks following my arrival, Hurricane Betsy, which was offshore in the Atlantic, turned around and headed straight for Homestead. The evacuation order came shortly thereafter, but there was not time to down load the Alert Force aircraft before they had to launch to beat the hurricane’s arrival. They evacuated carrying their nuclear weapons, which were placed in a “safed” condition, preventing any control or release by the aircrew. We also sent along loading teams to monitor the status of the weapons and place them in “alert” configuration at their dispersed locations.
Those of us who remained behind sand bagged each of our 21 igloos and maintenance facilities to prevent salt water flooding into them and damaging the weapons. We could do nothing to protect a vast amount of conventional munitions stored in the open between the igloos. In many cases, these were covered by rising salt water from Biscayne Bay.
The rising water also caused an evacuation by some of nature’s creatures. In that area lived large blue colored land crabs, with bodies the size of your fist and pincers the size of your hand. Every one of these crabs crawled out of the swamps to seek higher places. They climbed up onto the eight foot high cyclone fence surrounding the MSA making a solid wall half a mile long on the seaward side. I guess they didn’t find the ground high enough, because after Betsy roared through, they promptly died hanging on the fence, and the stink was horrible. They also were all over Homestead AFB’s single runway and parking apron. Efforts to clean them up called for troops with shovels and brooms. The base suffered much damage and required extensive repairs, although was not damaged nearly as much as by Hurricane Andrew 27 years later.
Fortunately, there was no snow removal problem at Homestead, but you could stand there and see the grass grow, especially on the 21 igloos. Many MMS man-hours were expended trying to keep this grass under control. The CE authorized us to hire local contractors for grass cutting, but you could never get them to come back the second day! We tried sheep, which were unsuccessful, plus they and the guard dogs were incompatible. I tried all my time at Homestead to obtain mowing equipment similar to that used by the state highway department to mow along interstate highway interchanges, but was unsuccessful.
One thing I never figured out was how certain situations, which were forbidden by regulation, managed to exist for decades and through dozens of ORITs, until I showed up and got stuck with the problem! For example, when loading munitions, the aircraft had to be electrically grounded to specifically marked grounding points on the ramp. These grounding points were not the same as aircraft tie-down points. As you may have guessed, Homestead did not have any marked grounding points! In fact, it did not have any grounding points. It was necessary to temporarily install such points into the earth off the paved parking apron. No one had detected, much less corrected this deficiency over the many years Homestead had existed. We never could get CE to install grounding points, and when I departed, we were still using the temporary grounding points.
We also had trouble getting our sister services to cooperate in accordance with the regulation. At Homestead we provided support the US Army Hawk and Nike Hercules missile units. One day an inspection team from the Armed Forces Explosives Safety Brand (AFESB) came to visit us in response to a complaint from the Army that a shipment of their Hawk missile motors had been damaged in shipment by rail and/or truck. It seems that the missile motors were arriving by rail, then transferred to a truck for transportation to an Army assembly building. The train stopped at a wide spot near the track, and more or less shoved the motors onto the truck. Several of the motors had fallen onto the ground and been manhandled back up into the truck. The problem was that this sort of rough handing could cause the solid propellant in the motor to crack, which would in turn cause the motor to explode rather than burn properly during launch.
Although this transfer “procedure” had been going on since the Cuban Missile Crisis, this was the first we had heard of it. Even so, everyone pointed the finger at MMS for not having properly established the off load site and supervised the train to truck transfer. We carefully explained to the Army that if they wanted our help, they needed to communicate with us and that since they had set up the operation on their own, it should be their responsibility to monitor it. After a lot of work, we collectively resolved the issue and convinced the AFESB that the MMS did properly monitor all explosive and munition transportation arriving at HAFB, when we included in the “loop.”
When the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis caused the 3,100 acre base to expand from a single B-52 wing to multi-wing, many aircraft base, there was also a rapid growth in conventional munitions. Every storage igloo was filled to its limits and much additional munitions were stored outside, exposed to the elements. Specific storage, inspection and maintenance procedures had been set aside in every conceivable way, all without waiver documentation.
Now in 1965, it was necessary to restore proper procedures to minimize the “explosive hazard” inherent with munitions. We inspected the munitions stored outside, and found most of it needed to be returned to a depot for reconditioning, and that several tons were too hazardous to be shipped for rework. They needed to be destroyed before they accidentally exploded, which would have been disastrous in our small, overcrowded MSA. Disposal of these hazardous explosives was the job of EOD personnel, which at that time consisted of myself and one enlisted 464X0 technician.
The base disposal range had only a one-half pound limit which could not be of any use. In an extreme emergency, a Dade County landfill 35 miles distant could be used after much coordination with civil officials. The nearest authorized disposal site suitable for the amount of hazardous material we had was at Avon Park Bombing Range, 200 miles to the northwest, not a satisfactory solution.
Failing to get any assistance through SAC or Air Force, I approached the U.S. Coast Guard to help in disposing of these hazardous munitions in an authorized off shore Explosives Disposal site. The Coast Guard provided a C-123 aircraft and crew for a two week period. We EOD personnel did all the loading and dumping overboard of the tons of explosives, which solved this very big problem.
In early 1966 the 29th MMS began to receive the maintenance, handling, transporting and loading equipment to support a new weapon for our B-52s, the AGM-69A Short Range Attack Missile (SRAM). The 2,200 pound SRAM was designed as a standoff missile and could hit targets 100 miles from its launch point. Eight of these nuclear-armed missiles were carried on a rotary dispenser similar to the cylinder of a “six-shooter” revolver, loaded into aft bomb bay in a special rack. These were to be carried in addition to the 4 MK 28 weapons “clipped-in” to the forward bomb bay. As the AGM-77 Hound Dog was phased out, an external dispenser would be adopted to the under wing pylons. Although I left Homestead before this program was fully implemented, maintaining the missile and warhead were assigned to the MMS rather than AMMS, and our already over-crowded MSA was strained to its limits as we set up for this new munition.
There were even bigger potential problems, and there were code names for them. These were for events connected with nuclear weapons. “Broken Arrow” meant an accident involving the weapons had occurred, while “Bent Spear” meant an incident had occurred, and “Dull Sword” meant there was a potential hazard. These events could be with the weapons themselves, or their delivery vehicles (e.g. an EWO loaded aircraft), towing or loading equipment, check-lists and procedures, or maintenance functions.
There weren’t many Broken Arrows, but we had a good one at Homestead. During takeoff on a Chrome Dome mission, the pilot aborted the take off after the go/no go decision point, and naturally could not stop the aircraft before running out of runway. The aircraft came to a stop in the overrun after rolling over several rows of runway approach lights. Then, the heavily loaded B-52 began to sink into the soft macadam surface. This effectively put the Alert Force out of action until the runway could be cleared. Also, by the book, this required the wing to do several things: First, the BW would need to generate a replacement Chrome Dome loaded aircraft, while, second, it had to maintain the already airborne Chrome Dome with inflight refueling and, third, it had to notify everyone up the chain of command that the 19th BW had a Bent Spear.
Having a Bent Spear was not thought well of by SAC, and the 19th BW “leadership” decided that, since the pilot was in error for aborting and the aircraft could be towed out of the approach lights and launched, albeit late, they need not declare a Bent Spear. However, they could not move the heavy aircraft with the available equipment. We in the MMS recommended removing the more than ten tons of nuclear weapons and warheads before proceeding, but that idea was vetoed. When they finally made the attempt to move the aircraft, they broke a hydraulic line in the wheel well and sprayed fluid onto the hot brakes, which caused a flash fire which was immediately extinguished. However, by the book, we now had a Broken Arrow, which, combined with the chain of errors leading up to it, was not going to be a career enhancing incident for the wing’s decision makers.
It had now become necessary to, finally, download the weapons. The B-52 had settled deep into the macadam and it was necessary to let almost all the air from the tires of our MHU-7M weapons trailer before we could clear the bombs from the bomb bay. The aircraft had to also be defueled before it was light enough to be moved. All in all, the 19th BW had many major problems that day. But, help was on the way!
The next day, the SAC no-notice ORIT team arrived and found the 19th BW unsatisfactory and therefore non-combat ready. So was the 29th MMS. As a result of the ORIT, the same personnel system which could never locate more than 50% manning for the 29th MMS, located and reassigned to Homestead two senior 4625 munitions officers, three senior 46290 NCOs, and some additional munitions mechanics. They also gave me orders to Vietnam. I certainly didn’t feel badly about that, in fact I was so fed up with the 19th BW and the kind of leadership which turned Bent Spears into Broken Arrows, that I was afraid they would cancel my orders! I departed Homestead in 1966, just a year after my arrival, glad to get away from the most frustrating MMS assignment I was to have.
I spent my year in Vietnam as the 7th Air Force EOD Team Commander and staff officer, and when I returned, I was assigned to the 3901st Strategic Missile Evaluation Squadron (SMES) at Vandenberg AFB, California. The 3901st was a “direct reporting unit” that reported directly to HQ SAC, and was responsible for evaluating the operations of every SAC Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) wing in SAC. In 1967, this meant those wings “flying” Titan II and Minute Man I and II missiles. My field of expertise was the Missile Reentry Vehicle (RV) related munitions, and EOD operations of the evaluated wings.
Fours months after my arrival at Vandenberg, SAC needed a new Squadron Commander for the 51st MMS, 1st Strategic Aerospace Division (STRAD) there at Vandenberg, and I was reassigned from the 3901st to the Commander’s billet at the 51st. This proved to be a very challenging and rewarding MMS assignment. The personnel of the 51st were some of the most professional munitions troops to be found. I had to run to keep up.
The primary mission of the 51st MMS was support of the 1st STRAD EWO commitment with Titan II ICBMs. This missile used a MK 6 Reentry Vehicle (RV) which carried a W-53 warhead over 12 feet in length, four feet in diameter and weighing 8,000 pounds. Our loading team members were 463X0 nuclear weapon mechanics. We also supported the 3901st SMES and the SAC Missile Wings they were evaluating. The selected wing would remove a war ready missile and RV from its silo, transport it to Vandenberg and place it in a silo for the evaluation. The 51st would first replace the nuclear warhead with an instrumented test device in the RV and support the missile wing as it prepared for the launch down the Air Force Western Test Range to impact at Eniwetok atoll.
Equally important was our support of Air Force missile development and space explorations. For SAC, we supported the ICBMs, nuclear warheads, and RVs. For the tenant organizations at Vandenberg, including Air Defense Command, Systems Command, AFLC, and more than 20 civilian contractors, we provided support for various programs ranging from non-nuclear unconventional explosives, to solid fuel rocket and missile motors of various sizes and weights, many one of a kind.
The 98,000 acre Vandenberg AFB was the third largest base in the Air Force. It was divided roughly in half by the Santa Ynez river which flowed westward into the Pacific Ocean near a railroad station named “Surf.” The mountainous “South Vandenberg” was used primarily by non-SAC operations, and the 51st MMS had several large munitions storage facilities in a deep ravine there to support these tenants.
Even though Vandenberg was on the cutting edge of the space program, handling and storing those rocket and missile motors was done using a totally inadequate 6,000 pound capacity fork lift and a locally made wheeled cart. A major problem was the extremely low doors into the storage facilities in the ravine. While it took many months, we were able to get the Clark Fork Lift Company to design and build a high capacity vehicle for our specialized needs.
In 1969, SAC had three Titan II missile wings, plus those at Vandenberg, and began phasing the missile out. However, there still remained a need to train and qualify 463X0 personnel to maintain the MK 6 RV and the W-53 warhead systems. Air Training Command did this training for the Minute Man missile RV and warhead, but did not have the capability to do it for the MK 6. This responsibility fell, rather heavily, onto the 51st MMS. This became a large added task that we discharged very satisfactorily.
As the 51st also provided EOD service to the base, and I was the EOD officer for the test range, I’d like to close with two last rather unusual EOD incidents that occurred during my tour there at Vandenberg.
During WWII, Vandenberg was U.S. Army Camp Cooke, an artillery and tank training center. Lots of WWII munitions, mostly inert training items, were spread over much of the 98,000 acres of the base, especially in the rolling hills of North Vandenberg, where the industrial and residential areas of the base were located. There were many live items easily located near base housing, including hand grenades, 2.36 inch bazooka rocket motors and warheads, 75mm and 105mm artillery projectiles. Dependent children, including my own, roamed everywhere and were the finders of many of these hazardous items.
On one occasion two young boys located and took home a 2.36 inch explosive loaded bazooka rocket and three 75mm projectiles. One of the 75mm rounds was a solid steel practice round, but the other two were armor piercing projectiles, explosive loaded with base detonating fuses. All projectiles had been fired from a gun and were theoretically armed. They were also rusty, and extremely hazardous. Fortunately, the boys’ mother contacted the Air Police, who in turn called us. We set up the bazooka rocket and the two explosive loaded projectiles for detonation on our disposal range, with several cardboard target silhouettes around to simulate what would happen to bystanders when these items detonated. We asked the base newspaper to cover the story, and had the two boys and their parents on hand to witness the demonstration. When we touched off the explosives, several of the silhouettes were demolished, and the others riddled with shrapnel holes. Those looking on at the demonstrations were measurably impressed. The printed story and photos in the paper brought a flood of recovered WWII ordnance items, a large number of which contained live explosives, and most of which had previously decorated the bedrooms of dependent children all over the base.
One final and rather unusual EOD job finishes my retelling of what I hope were a few interesting incidents in the MMS business. In January and February, 1969, Santa Barbara County experienced heavy rains in the Sierra Madre Mountains east of Vandenberg. Lake Cachuma, which served as a reservoir for the city of Santa Barbara, overflowed, resulting in three separate “100-year floods” in a 30-day period. Each of these floods roared down the Santa Ynez Rives, through Vandenberg and into the Pacific Ocean. The first flood in mid-January scoured the normally dry river bed of years of accumulated debris, jamming most of it against bridges crossing the river.
The next to last bridge crossing the Santa Ynez was located on Vandenberg about 1,000 yards from the ocean. Built during 1942 to handle tanks and other heavy military traffic, the “Surf Bridge” had been constructed on top of a salt water barrier of huge concrete blocks sunk into the river bed. The purpose of this barrier was to prevent ocean salt water from encroaching onto surrounding farm land at high tide. In 1969, this farm land was used to grow commercial flower seeds. Much debris had piled against the upstream side of the Surf Bridge, creating a very effective dam. The roaring water of this first flood had flowed over the bridge and poured down alongside the salt water barrier, undermining the barrier. Combined with the pressure against the upstream side, this caused the bridge to tilt onto its downstream side, creating an efficient dam.
After the initial storms ended and the first flooding eased, the Air Force contracted with a civilian firm to have the Surf Bridge, now a dam, removed. Before any action could take place however, new storms developed and a second flood rushed down the Santa Ynez.
The Air Force was then faced with billions of dollars in law suits from private land owners along the river as well as city, county and state authorities for having not cleared the obstruction from the river. In the early hours of a Friday morning, our EOD team responded to a call “to do something” to remove the bridge/dam. Using all the explosives we had on hand, jack hammers, cutting torches and power saws, over a period of several hours we succeeded in blowing a sixty-foot wide gap in the collapsed bridge, allowing the river to flow through. The Air Force then authorized us to blow apart the remains of the bridge in order to drag it ashore for salvage. Obtaining several hundred pounds of commercial ammonium nitrate fertilizer mixed with diesel oil, dynamite and detonating cord, we worked through the week end and were successful in severing several sections of the bridge, as well as clearing many of the large trees and other pieces of debris from the dammed river. We never finished the job, though, because that Monday morning the third and final flood roared down the river valley, washing many of the severed bridge sections out into the Pacific Ocean. Surf bridge was later replaced with another bridge further upstream.
After 15 months with the 51st MMS, SAC decided to transfer me once again, this time to the SAC IG team at Offutt AFB, Nebraska. The Strategic Air Command was a great believer in inspections, and it looked like I was going to wind up serving my last tour as an evaluator.
While each BW would have a no-notice ORIT at least once every six months from SAC or a SAC Numbered Air Force (2nd, 8th, 15th, or 16th), they also received a practice no-notice ORITs code named “Golden Hour Tango” every six months. The wing would do everything the same as during a “real” ORIT, and I’m not certain I ever knew the difference. Each MMS was also evaluated every six months by the respective Numbered Air Force Munitions Standardization Team (MST). They would not run a full ORIT schedule, but would check the MMS 472X0 Standardization Team and Maintenance Branch 463X0 operations. Because each MST inspected differently, SAC created a headquarters level Munitions Standardization Evaluation Team (MSET), which also inspected each MMS every six months. The Defense Atomic Support Agency (DASA) also had a separate inspection team, but they only came once a year! The Nuclear Safety Agency also got into the act with a separate inspection on how well the MMS safety program was operation. The Armed Forces Explosive Safety Board also checked on our explosive siting, storing, transporting, and handling operations, plus several other areas I’ve forgotten. We also had Staff Assistance Visits from wing, and it was common practice for one MMS to send personnel TDY to another MMS to provide “staff” assistance! Throughout my ten years in the SAC MMS business, I had quite a few inspections, evaluations, and “we’re here to help you” visits, and I’m rather proud to say that with the exception of Homestead, any unit that I was in for more than a month passed them all with flying colors. Now it looked like I would be on the other end of the stick for a while.
However, Air Force intervened and whisked me away from the command in which I had spent 18 years, and assigned me as Director of Training, U.S. Naval School, Explosive Ordnance Disposal, Indian Head, Maryland, the same school from which I had graduated four years previously. I wasn’t exactly devastated.
Believe it or not, I enjoyed most of my years
in SAC where I served as Aircraft Performance Engineer
(B-36), Navigator/Bombardier (B-47), Weapons
Instructor and Munitions Officer. I served with
numerous top notch people, had experiences I will
remember for a life time, and really believed I did my
part to help win the cold war.